How Local Sushi Bars Innovated to Adapt to the Pandemic-Era Takeout Landscape

Sushi chefs have been known to scold customers for waiting a beat to take a bite, but now they’ve made major adjustments to keep their restaurants afloat

While the pandemic has, sadly, put the sushi master-customer interaction on pause at restaurants across L.A. and beyond, many sushi bars have put a ton of thought and effort into takeout, creating Instagram-friendly boxes that travel surprisingly well. Places like Izakaya Tonchinkan in Arcadia, Echigo Sushi in Sawtelle, Sushi Tama in Beverly Grove, and Sushi I-NABA in Manhattan Beach have all adapted well to the new world. Some of the smaller operations had neither websites nor social media accounts before the pandemic, but now online sales and phone orders are allowing some businesses to do more than survive—and allowing customers to enjoy high-quality sushi, chirashi, and rolls at home, work, or in a nearby park.

Some exacting sushi chefs have been known to scold customers for waiting even an extra beat to take bites of nigiri or hand rolls when served at their bars. In the COVID era, different chefs have demonstrated different comfort levels when it comes to takeout. Some sushi chefs readily serve nigiri, hand-molded seafood, and sushi rice bites, while other chefs don’t allow nigiri beyond their doors. Hand rolls are also generally unavailable, to prevent crispy nori wrappers from getting soggy, though DIY hand rolls and cut rolls are available.

Bun Geiz Corporation owner-CEO Yamato Miura, who also operates Benten Ramen and DTLA Ramen, opened tiny Izakaya Tonchinkan in Arcadia at the start of 2018. Izakaya Tonchinkan didn’t offer takeout and delivery before COVID-19 struck, but Miura quickly implemented a to-go menu and online ordering platform soon after California Governor Gavin Newsom issued a “shelter in place” order on March 15. A talent infusion made these vital changes possible.

Before the pandemic, Miura let former colleague Hiro Yamada use the restaurant on Sundays, when Izakaya Tonchinkan is closed, to host invite-only omakase experiences. After Yamada left his full-time job at Shiki Beverly Hills in February, Miura hired him at Izakaya Tonchinkan. “It was just a coincidence that Hiro left the job and came to Tonchinkan,” Miura says. “Otherwise we were not able to offer the great quality of sushi like this.” Miura also hired Osaka fish market veteran Tatsu Morikawa. New takeout offerings have provided a lifeline, including high-value omakase ($25-$38), chirashi, sashimi, hand rolls, and Japanese sake.

“I think we were not able to survive without sushi items,” Miura says. “An izakaya is typically known as ‘drinking place,’ and it could be very tough for an izakaya to survive without in-store alcohol sales.” They now typically sell 30 to 50 sushi related menu items on weekdays and double that on weekends. Izakaya Tonchinkan will continue with sushi beyond COVID-19, and they’re so encouraged by sales that locals should expect a spinoff sushi bar nearby soon.

Yasuhiro “Yasu” Hirano runs the whole show at six-seat Sushi I-NABA Manhattan Beach. He was best known for attentive, higher-end omakase before the pandemic. Rather than let the tiny bar lie fallow for the duration of the crisis, as soon as restrictions hit, he immediately launched takeout, letting customers preorder “jewelry boxes,” chirashi bowls, and sashimi trays, but not nigiri.

Yasu definitely prefers that customers eat nigiri in person. “Some customers may pick up sushi at 3 p.m. and leave it in fridge and eat that around 7 p.m.,” Yasu says. “If they do that, they cannot enjoy sushi at its best condition.” However, he’s confident that other Sushi I-NABA creations will fare better after transport.

sushi covid
Izakaya Tonchinkan premium omakase sushi

Josh Luri

Chef Yasu serves exquisite seafood “jewelry boxes” ($220) that feed 2 to 3 people, and “samurai sushi balls” (2 for $20) that house assorted marinated fish in rice balls that are designed to go. “Actually, I recommend to wait at least two hours after I make [samurai sushi balls],” Yasu says. He also offers futomaki (fat rolled and sliced sushi) and introduced a fun makanai (employee meal) that allows him “to enjoy this hard time.” Makanai also gives him freedom to serve pasta, considered taboo in a sushi restaurant, resulting in preparations like uni shio kombu pasta (starring sea urchin and salted dry kelp).

Post-pandemic, Chef Yasu will continue takeout and private catering, which has been available after Sushi I-NABA closes at 6 p.m. and on days they’re closed.

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Temaki set from Sushi Tama in Beverly Grove

Josh Lurie

In August, Shōwa Hospitality opened Sushi Tama across from The Ivy on Robertson Boulevard’s most fashionable stretch during another COVID-19 spike. Chef Hideyuki “Yoshi” Yoshimoto and crew were limited to having customers dine on their small patio. To reach more people, Sushi Tama’s operators designed more robust, travel friendly options. The company, which also runs restaurants in cities like Las Vegas, Miami, and New York, already offered omakase and temaki sets at sister restaurant Himitsu in La Jolla. Chef Yoshi created versions for Sushi Tama.

Their DIY temaki set ($60) features batons of raw tuna, yellowtail, and salmon served with compartmentalized sushi rice, toasted nori wrappers, uni, ikura, chives, pickled radish, burdock root, portioned sushi rice, and toasted nori. Their omakase nigiri set ($45) packages ten pieces of prized seafood, including uni and ikura, plus hotate (sea scallop), otoro (fatty tuna belly), kinmedai (splendid alfonsino), and nodoguro (black-throated sea perch).

Shōwa Hospitality founder Julian Hakim appreciates his team’s approach and customer response, saying, “We’ve put a lot of thought to our takeout menu, packaging, and presentation. The takeout menu will continue to be a part of Sushi Tama even after the pandemic is over.”

In West L.A., chef Toshi Kataoka has run traditional Echigo Sushi on Palm Plaza’s second floor since 2002. To weather the pandemic, they added a website with online ordering, ramped up their Instagram presence, and started offering takeout omakase, lunch specials, and a la carte nigiri. During a recent visit, Chef Toshi was a one-man band, answering phones, preparing sushi, and accepting payments. A recent omakase meal cost $44.60 and consisted of toro, halibut, scallop, shima aji, ono, butterfish, and skipjack, plus a blue crab hand roll and miso soup. Lunch specials cost $16 and are available all day, combining tuna, yellowtail, albacore, snapper, and salmon nigiri with a blue crab roll.

For other businesses, including Sugarfish by Sushi Nozawa and sister concept KazuNori: The Original Hand Roll Bar, takeout is nothing new. They’ve offered boxes with thoughtful packaging and deft branding for years, choosing to focus on nigiri, sashimi, and cut rolls, but the crisis inspired them to innovate. For instance, KazuNori added a home hand roll kit ($95) during the pandemic that features four types of fish and fixings, enough to make 20 rolls.

To many people, sushi can feel like a luxury, and it’s certainly possible to get special-occasion takeout, but restaurants like these all offer lower-cost options with relative value and have made the experience more approachable. The pandemic has ushered in a new era of takeout and delivery sushi for the people.

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